Mar 30, 2021

What COVID teaches us about making tomorrow

As part of our We Make Tomorrow conversation series, Brandon Simmons-Rawls considers how biology can bring great things into the world faster than we might think.

Brandon Simmnos-Rawls, Snr Research Fellow

In this time of COVID, many of us have been learning about how vaccines work. For those of us in science, it has been especially interesting to watch how the research community has come together to produce a vaccine in record time. Senior Research Associate Brandon Simmons-Rawls discusses how COVID has put science in the spotlight and shown us how quickly biology can solve big problems.

Brandon, you say that COVID has given new meaning to your work. What do you mean?
It used to take four years to do what Moderna did in under a year. When people see what’s going on in the vaccine world, I want them to think: Wow, if we could do that in pharma, what other kinds of products of biology could we make if we focused our resources the same way? We could probably create something like cheap biofuels or biodegradable plastics.

Right now, the development times are so long for biology — 10-15 years just to make one drug or a single product. I want companies like ours to be able to make products as fast as the COVID vaccine. It motivates me to focus on automation and ways to do more in less time.

What’s the most exciting aspect of Zymergen to you?
I’m most excited that we are not satisfied with making just one product: we want to build a system where we can make multiple products quickly. Instead of focusing on one product, we look at the commonality between innovations so that we can build a system that can make many different products down the line.

How do you build a platform that can make many products?
We build those systems through radical empiricism: we increase the amount we build and test, using a pooled building method that allows for greater variety. That yields more insight on the back end. In addition, there’s a lot of melding between different groups and different expertise. That definitely benefits the entire company and the entire notion of what we’re trying to achieve.

What is your ultimate hope for the work you’re doing?
The great joy of my career has been watching synthetic biology grow up. My hope is that we make biology more tactile and more reachable in people’s daily lives. As we improve on our platform, we’re able to make different things that are more sustainable and attainable. For example, people will see new, more sustainable products at their grocery store. My hope is that this will create curiosity and increased knowledge that culminates in a better understanding and more personal investment into these new products.